Sheshatshiu 'needs a miracle,' says physician who worked to help Labrador children

Mark Quinn/CBC

A physician who has worked with leaders in Labrador and across Canada to address the fallout of alcohol abuse says he's not surprised that the Innu community of Sheshatshiu declared a suicide crisis this week.

"Well, I was sort of expecting it," said Dr. Ted Rosales, who has treated children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders for decades.

"When I first got involved in 2001, at the Grace Hospital, we made a very good plan federally, provincially and locally but subsequently I've learned that almost all of these plans weren't carried out."

Sheshatshiu has lost 14 members to natural causes this year, and on Tuesday Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation Chief Eugene Hart declared a crisis in the community, saying there had been 10 recent suicide attempts.

On Friday, Premier Dwight Ball said he was in communication with Hart, and that there were resources on the ground to support the community during a "hard week."

Ball did not confirm specific plans to visit Sheshatshiu but said he would go when told he was needed.

"I've told [Hart] that when they want me there, I'll be there."

'This will take time'

The solution to the problems in these communities is known to federal, provincial and local leaders, said Rosales, who added that the plans that were developed decades ago should be implemented.

Rosales said the first step must happen at the top of the leadership chain in Labrador.

Mark Quinn/CBC

"The main thing is a change in the leadership mentality in the community," he said. "Almost every one to two years there is change of leadership and whatever goes on in the philosophy... they're always back in square one."

He has been to the community several times since 2001, he said, and each time there is different leadership in place.

"You think you are able to get across to someone and next time there is someone new," he said.

Unfortunately, there is no overnight solution here. - Premier Dwight Ball

But Rosales said that changing the situation is not up to local leadership alone.

"There has to be strong encouragement from the federal and provincial governments. Especially the federal government, because my understanding is that the federal government is mainly the one responsible for a lot things in the community," he said.

"You know, the province has some input but the federal government has the financial responsibility to provide the things that should be needed."

Ball, meanwhile, pointed to changes that have happened so far, like a reduction in wait times to access mental health services. However, he acknowledged that while short-term resources are important, the problem needs long-term solutions.

"This will take time," said Ball, who is also the government's minister responsible for Labrador and Indigenous affairs. "Unfortunately, there is no overnight solution here."

'It's one of my failures'

Rosales, a pediatrician who has specialized in treating children harmed by prenatal exposure to alcohol, worked with dozens of young Innu who were sent to the Grace Hospital in St. John's in 2001 for treatment of solvent abuse.

He's not optimistic that enough is being done now on that front.

"The way they are doing it now, they are sending a couple of social workers and psychologists for two weeks at most, maybe less... they're gone. Did they change anything? I don't think so," he said.

"I hate to be blunt about that but I don't think they'll change anything with what they are doing now."

Young people make up a large percentage of the Labrador Innu's population, and Rosales worries about their futures.

"Those children are still affected by the same problems that those who are now older were affected with, and that to me is a big problem," he said.

"I hate to mention it but I don't think alcohol has really been minimized since 2001 which is one of the main problems that was identified."

Mark Quinn/ CBC

Ball acknowledged that the problems currently seen in Sheshatshiu are not necessarily new, though the current situation is particularly serious. 

Rosales said that unless there were significant changes in the community, which "needs a miracle," he was not sure that much would change as much as he also said he hoped he was wrong.

"It's one of my failures, you know," Rosales said.

"I have done a lot of things in my life but I see the Innu problem as a failure because we have not been able to change much of anything."

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